There are a handful of players throughout baseball history who were clearly the best in the game for a stretch of time. Some of them petered out, others were great for a season or two and then average for a while, and some – a small minority – were legends and earned their place in the Hall of Fame. Blue belongs to another small group, the players who were great for a few seasons, clearly the best at what they did, and then were very good or good for several more seasons. Dale Murphy was like that, and so was Fred Lynn, to pick a player from Blue’s era. But none of them are in the Hall of Fame. Mostly because their peaks, though very good, were not long enough. Or they failed to amass enough career milestones to earn Hall of Fame election. Murphy and Lynn did not hit 500 homers or get 3,000 hits, Blue didn’t win 300 games.
For many reasons though, Blue deserves serious consideration for the Hall of Fame, and so do Murphy and Lynn, for that matter. From 1971 to 1975, Blue was the best left-handed pitcher in his league, and only Steve Carlton rivaled him in all of baseball. His ’71 season is one of the best ever by a pitcher throwing with any hand. That year he threw eight shutouts and allowed 103 fewer hits than innings pitched! He completed 24 of his 39 starts and still had enough strength to strike out more than 300 batters. He was dominating. Like Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove and Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax in their primes. Blue was that good in 1971. Then he went out and won 20 games two more times and even though he never approached his pinnacle year, he was excellent. He was among the 3-4 best pitchers in the game from age 21 to age 28.
Then his drug problem clamped down on him and his 30s were a disappointment. While his contemporary pitchers were marching on into their second decades toward 300 wins (Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton), Vida won just 53 games after his 29th birthday and wound up with 209. A very good total, but it looks less impressive next to the totals of the pitchers I’ve already mentioned, in addition to Tommy John, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, and others who followed him like Jack Morris.
But at his best, Blue was better than all of them (with the exception of Carlton). He was a once in a generation pitcher. He accumulated enough wins and awards (MVP and Cy Young in ’71 and Cy Young votes in five seasons) to rank among the greatest of his generation even though he ruined his 30s by snorting cocaine.
Should Blue be in the Hall of Fame? It’s a tough call. It depends on how much you weigh peak performance. For sure he was better for a 3-4 year stretch than many hurlers who have plaques in Cooperstown.
Most Wins by a Southpaw, 1971-1982
1. †Steve Carlton … 228
2. †Vida Blue … 188
3. †Tommy John … 166
4. †Jerry Ruess … 153
5. †Paul Splittorff … 152
Wins are obviously not the best way to measure the brilliance of a pitcher. There are many, many factors that lead to wins and losses that are outside the influence of the pitcher. However, the larger the time period you look at the more important wins become. Great and good pitchers win more games over time, for the most part. The most striking thing about the list of winningest pitchers in the 1970s is that every one of the men in the top 11 are in the Hall of Fame, except Vida Blue. Outside of Carlton, Blue was obviously the best lefty starting pitcher in baseball for about 12 seasons.
Most wins in MLB, 1970-1979
1. †Jim Palmer … 186
2. †Gaylord Perry … 184
3. †Tom Seaver … 178
3. †Fergie Jenkins … 178
3. †Steve Carlton … 178
6. †Catfish Hunter … 169
7. †Don Sutton … 166
8. †Phil Niekro … 164
9. †Nolan Ryan … 155
9. †Vida Blue … 155
11. †Bert Blyleven … 148
Beef with reporters
A couple of years after his MVP season, while he was still with the A’s, reporters in the Bay Area speculated that Vida was losing a few miles on his fastball and that perhaps he was concealing a “dead arm.” This incensed the lefty.
“All you guys from UPI and AP and ST and all the other initials, and anyone else who †thinks my arm is dead, come out to the park and get a bat. I’ll throw you guys 100 pitches and give any man 0 for each pitch he fouls off,” Blue said after he twirled a three-hit victory over the Royals.